Updated: Dec 31, 2020
by R. Ahmad
In the captivating movie adaptation of ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’, we see high school freshman, Charlie (Logan Lerman), attempting to navigate life, relationships, and the ever-so-daunting task of trying to fit in when you feel different. His high school experience is changed when he befriends the elusively carefree high school seniors, Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson), who take him under their wing and expose him to new experiences. Through their friendship, Charlie is able to learn new things about himself, as well as form a new view of everything else around him.
A perfect adaptation of Stephen Chbosky’s brilliant book, the movie takes you on an incredible and painfully accurate journey through self-discovery and healing. Most importantly, The Perks of Being a Wallflower perfectly illustrates what it’s like growing up with childhood trauma, the meaning of friendship, the support of family, and what it truly means to be unconditionally loved.
Friedrich Nietzche once said, “There are no beautiful surfaces without a terrible depth.” Although the idea of beauty not existing without some form of ugliness is a running theme in many writings of great authors, philosophers, and psychologists; the concept of beauty and ugly, in reality, is oftentimes viewed as mutually exclusive. However, any human experience or interaction would say otherwise. Depending on your own definition of what is considered to be beautiful and what is considered to be ugly, you may be able to see how one cannot exist without the other.
Every person comes into your life with their own experiences, their own past, their own struggles, and their own pain. Many times these stories are difficult ones. They are one’s that illustrate a negative experience or a hard life. Unfortunately, these experiences – that one way or another helped shape the person into who they are today – are viewed by other’s as “ugliness”, which in turn hurts the way the individual views themselves. We have such negative connotations associated with commonly experienced, yet not widely discussed emotions. So to that, my question is: why is this so-called underlying “ugliness” a condition that must be accepted, and not a given that is within everyone? This breeds the idea that one must seek acceptance from others in order to feel a sense of worthiness. When, in fact, their struggles are not something within their control. This, in my opinion, is one of the main questions that ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ seeks to answer. At one point in the movie, Charlie narrates his concern of what people would think if they saw what was inside his head. The thing Charlie doesn’t realize, but learns later on, is that everyone around him has had difficult experiences.
A very special quality within Charlie is that he unconditionally accepts everyone’s flaws and darkness, because he understands their pain, a pain he feels as well. They don’t need to voice it for him to see it. Charlie sees that his friends are beautiful – not despite their struggles, but in spite of them. As Patrick describes to him in one scene, after finding out that Charlie’s best friend committed suicide, he says, “You see things. You understand. You’re a wallflower.” In this moment, Charlie feels seen, he feels accepted, and this is where his growth and healing process begins.
Throughout the movie, we see Charlie attempting to navigate life and everything that comes with it – friendship, love, and self-discovery – while trying to understand the chaos in his head. One of the most important questions that the story answers concerns the meaning of true friendship and what that looks like. We see a group of friends unapologetically themselves; thriving on their individual differences, they take in an introvert just as he is. They never ask nor expect him to change in order to be their friend. They choose to unconditionally love him, because just like he understands the things that make them who they are, they welcome that which makes him uniquely Charlie. We see this in their interactions with one another. In one scene, Charlie tells his friends that he wants to be a writer, and that was never questioned. It is immediately embraced. His friends allowed him the space to be himself without any judgment. It’s an important lesson to learn; acceptance is not simply saying, “I accept you.” Acceptance is also showing the other person that they matter, that they are important, that they are heard, and that they are loved. Remember, words and actions are two separate entities that are strengthened when present together. Use both wisely.
The movie, in general, deals with a very heavy topic that is handled very well. Charlie’s mental illness is revealed to be a result of childhood trauma after a certain experience with Sam triggers the traumatic memory. Charlie’s abused and disturbed aunt, Helen, whom Charlie idolizes throughout the movie, molested him as a ten-year-old child. The exact sequence of events is not shown on screen, but at one point, she leaves to bring him a gift only to die in a car accident. When Charlie’s trauma is triggered, he begins to feel immense guilt for her death, claiming that he wanted her to die. This depiction of trauma is shockingly accurate. Especially seeing as Charlie always felt that something didn’t feel right within him, yet never knew the reason for it. Most of the time, individuals who experienced a traumatic event don’t remember it for many years after it happened.
My favorite part of the way Charlie’s story was told, however, was that the trauma is only ever implied rather than explicitly pointed out. Charlie was never painted as a victim, which is an important aspect to highlight. It is common for people who experience trauma to be labeled either “victim” or “survivor”, to which they are then always treated as such, as though they are broken. Others, then, begin to only see their trauma, and not them. Charlie’s character not being portrayed in that light, allows us to see him as just Charlie. He had a terrible experience, but that’s just one part of his story. He is so much more.
To conclude, it’s important to highlight the mental growth that Charlie goes through in the movie. A scene towards the end of the movie shows Charlie raising his hand in class when his teacher asked who would be reading for fun over the summer break. On the surface, this may not seem like much. However, in the beginning of the movie, Charlie refuses to participate in class, even though he knows all the correct answers. This scene alone begs the question of: What does growth really entail?
I think the movie accurately answers this question by showing that growth can be summoning up all your courage to take the smallest step you can think of, yet still achieve an immense amount of growth. It’s crucial to keep in mind that the journey to growth, development, and healing doesn’t look the same for everyone. We may all have a story to tell, but every single one of our stories was written under different circumstances. Always remember that; and if you take anything away from what you read today, take this: love unconditionally, listen carefully, and know that you are never alone.